No matter how much you enjoy the aquarium hobby, life sometimes demands a lot of your attention. It may be work-related, a family situation or some other important event. During those times you probably didn't give your reef the attention it needed to stay healthy and run properly - it can be discouraging to find your tank in poor condition. The water may be murky, the glass covered with algae and live rock a mess. You may even have lost some fish or corals and may feel like giving up - but don't! the truth is, with some effort, you can restore your neglected aquarium to its former beauty! Follow along as we take a step-by-step approach to reviving a reef.

Step 1: Test the Water

Water testing to help determine and restore appropriate aquarium levels of problematic elements.

You may want to jump in with the algae scraper and siphon hose but the first thing you want to do restore your neglected aquarium is check the water quality. Algae aren’t an immediate threat to your aquatic life but poor water quality is. Test the basics: ammonia, nitrite, nitrate, alkalinity and pH. This will give you a quick health report on the aquarium’s water quality, and if something is way off the chart, take steps to correct it. If the results look okay, check the salinity and adjust as necessary. The idea is to make your fish and inverts safe and comfortable by restoring any neglected aquarium water quality issues right away.

Step 2: Service the Filtration System

What you do next to restore your neglected aquarium depends on the type of aquarium and layout of the filtration system. For an all-in-one reef, like many Innovative Marine tanks, start by removing the return pump from the filter. Clean the impeller and remove any obstructions. The filter media is probably packed with debris. Remove the old, dirty media and replace the sponge pad and other mechanical media. There’s no need to replace the activated carbon and other specialty media just yet. Keep your old bio media if you wish. Just give it a rinse in aquarium water to loosen surface debris. Clean the protein skimmer and make sure it’s working properly.

If your tank has a filter sump, make sure the return pump is working and free of debris. If the intake is clogged, clean the screen and impeller. If the pump is encrusted with coralline algae, soak it in vinegar or equipment cleaner. Service the protein skimmer and get it working properly. If you’ve got a media reactor, clean it out and but don’t add new media yet. Don’t forget to clean filter intakes and any other place that can get clogged or collect debris. The goal is to service the filtration system and get water circulating throughout the aquarium.

Step 3: Check the Water Temperature

Examine the heater to make sure it is maintaining a stable temperature. If it’s covered in algae, remove the heater and clean it with a brush. Coralline algae can be dissolved with vinegar but if it’s seriously neglected and encrusted, it may be better to replace the heater. If you’ve got a chiller, check the temperature setting and compare it to the tank’s water temperature.  Make adjustments if needed. The inlet and outlet plumbing must be clean and free of obstructions. If the coils are dusty, blow some compressed air through the slotted vents to allow air to pass through; dirty vents reduce chiller efficiency.

Step 4: Clean Powerheads and Flow Pumps

Another tip in restoring a neglected aquarium is to clean powerheads, gyre pumps and other in-tank circulation pumps. This maintenance should be done periodically to keep them working properly. If they haven't been cleaned in a while, use a tiny brush to clean the intake screen and impeller. For an encrusted pump, soak it in a vinegar-water solution or equipment cleaner. Reattach the pump and make sure it works as it should in the aquarium. Replace defective pumps if they won’t start nor run consistently. Water movement is important because it brings oxygenated water and nutrients to the corals and live rock.

Clean lighting, powerheads, return pumps, skimmers and other equipment to restore the aquarium.

Step 5: Inspect the Aquarium Light

It’s always a good idea to wipe down your light fixture to remove salt spray. If the fixture is heavily corroded it’s safer to replace it. Salty mist can damage the internal connections and cause a shorting inside the fixture. It may lead to arcing and start a fire. Don’t take any chances with damaged electrical equipment! Assuming the light is mechanically sound, replace old T-5 and metal halide bulbs with fresh bulbs. Check your timer or lighting program so it works correctly.

Step 6: Attack the Algae!

Scraping algae off the neglected glass and siphoning the algae out makes the aquarium more attractive

Now that the life support system is working, it’s time to start scraping algae. Use a scraper like Flipper Aquarium Magnets to remove stubborn algae from the glass. Hand-pick or siphon algae from the live rock. Siphon out as much algae as possible. Use a smaller diameter hose to remove sludge and debris from behind live rock. The idea is to siphon out as much dirt, debris and algae fragments as possible. Then add fresh saltwater back to the aquarium.

Step 7: Add Specialty Media to the Filter

Now that the “dirty work” is finished you can start using phosphate and nitrate removers. If you added these media before stirring up and removing sludge and algae they would have acted like mechanical filters and become fouled with debris. Keep an eye on your protein skimmer and filter socks. The skimmer cup may need frequent cleaning during the next week or so. Filter socks are designed to capture fine debris, so they are supposed to clog with suspended matter while polishing the water. Clean them often.

Step 8: Start Adjusting Water Quality

Chart of recommended water levels and testing of salinity and temperature

Now that you’ve made water changes and got the system running correctly, it’s time to zero in on specific parameters like calcium, magnesium and other essential reef elements. If your test kits are expired, replace them with fresh products. It’s also a good idea to get an ICP analysis of the water. It will provide a complete breakdown of all the elements in the tank and guide you on restoring the elemental balance.

Final Thoughts

The steps of how to restore your neglected aquarium can at first seem like a huge project, but if you follow a logical step-by-step approach, it will be easier than you think. It may take a little time for the reef life to settle in and start balancing the tank again. With a little work and patience your aquarium will be looking better than ever!